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Of Movie Codes and Public Morality : Efforts to revive Hays system for movies are misconceived

February 09, 1992

Will H. Hays, onetime postmaster general, onetime chairman of the Republican Party, was paid a princely salary in 1921-22 to come to Hollywood to set up enforcement of the film production code that would eventually bear his name. Written by two influential Roman Catholics of the day, the "Hays Code" was simultaneously a Catholic move against the moral corruption of Hollywood and Hollywood's subtle use of the church to clean up an image so tarnished by the Fatty Arbuckle rape case and similar scandals that ticket sales were in danger.

THE OLD CODE: In the decades before television, we sometimes forget, the movies were mass entertainment on a scale now scarcely imaginable. In the peak years, 80 million or 90 million tickets per week were sold, as against about 20 million per week now. And many millions of those tickets were sold to children and to families going to the movies together. It was as imperative, commercially speaking, for films to be wholesome as today it is imperative for Disneyland to be wholesome. The Hays Code was, in essence, a manual for writing about adult subjects for juveniles.

But then times changed. Through the 1950s and into the 1960s, television progressively took over the "family fun" function from the movies, even while norms within society as a whole regarding acceptable language and behavior underwent a profound transformation. A new consensus began to take shape. On the one hand, it was no longer necessary for all movies to be for children. On the other, it was necessary that some movies not be for children if filmmakers were to deal at all realistically with the society in which they found themselves. The harsh poignancy of early postwar Italian films--"Open City," "The Bicycle Thief" and a few others--added to the consensus: Cinema was an art form that not only could but should deal with adult themes, often using adult language.

The response to all these changes was the introduction, at the instigation of Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, of the current code, which was adopted in 1966 in its original form. That code acknowledges that some films (R) are for adults and others (G) are for the whole family, while still others (PG) may be suitable for youngsters above a given age, supposing parental guidance.

It's a good system, in principle, though it supposes, a bit unrealistically, that theaters will do their part in excluding children from R-rated films and that parents will do their part in guiding their children toward or (as the case may require) away from PG-rated films. The introduction of the VCR, blurring the distinction between television and film, has further complicated things.

THE 'NEW' OLD CODE: And yet the notion advanced by the Christian Film and Television Commission, and actively encouraged last week by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, that the Hays Code should be dusted off and brought back into use is unwise.

The commission's preface to its code begins with a scare story: A 14-year-old girl sees the film "Pretty Woman" and overnight turns into a prostitute. That story captures rather well the deepest error in the born-again code; namely, its premise that films are omnipotent, that other formative factors--family, church, government, economy--are impotent before it. The same story also captures a less important but still noteworthy mistake of emphasis. If the film industry is pandering to America's baser instincts in any way, it is less by films that flaunt sex than by ones that appeal directly and provocatively to a fascination with violence.

Here is where the leaders of the film industry need to take thought for the genuine social harm they may be doing. In our judgment, however, the cardinal's faint revision of the Hays Code will be of no help to them in that important task.

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